Friday, November 08, 2013

Egg stamping may not enhance food safety - but it should 'stamp out' egg substitution

Stamping eggs with a farm identification code is part of a national food safety scheme - but it's being implemented differently in each State. Tasmania is going through problems right now with backyarders and shopkeepers squealing that they should be exempt from any regulations - even though they sell eggs to an unsuspecting public. In Victoria, the State Government has delayed the compulsory introduction of egg stamping until November next year - so the industry has time to 'adjust'.
The Government here also says it will exempt producers with less than 50 hens from the new requirements. Makes the new regulations pretty pointless. A few years ago, some research indicated that well over a million eggs (and probably more like 2 million) were sold in Australia each year by backyard operators who had no understanding of food safety issues and standards.
Some producers think that the whole concept of egg stamping  is a farce and will do nothing to improve food safety or traceability.
I agree that in the case of tracing the origin of a food-borne illness as a result of eating dodgy eggs, stamping probably won't help. The egg shells on which the stamp appears will have been discarded days previously (especially in the case of restaurants and cafes where most of these problems occur).
But egg stamping will help to solve the egg substitution rort which has been rife for years but probably first came to general notice in Victoria in 2007. There was a very high profile case when a company was fined heaps for labelling eggs as organic when they were from non-organic farms.
In 2012, a NSW barn egg farm was fined for packaging its eggs as free range and a South Australian egg seller was fined for putting cage eggs in free range cartons. In the same year an inspection process in Victoria revealed that a farm was packing and selling eggs from dubious sources interstate and labelling them as free range eggs produced on that Victorian farm. At one stage, more than 70% of the eggs it sold were trucked in – so the business is just a middle-man egg merchant and the farm here was simply window-dressing.
If all eggs are stamped with a unique number which shows the farm on which they were laid, egg substitution will hopefully become a thing of the past.
Consumers may still have to contend with labels which can be misleading, with pictures of hens frolicking on green pasture when the reality is far different.
Accreditation means different things to different people. Consumers rightly expect it to convey a message of credibility about a particular product, but to many businesses it's simply a marketing tool designed to allow them to make claims which increase their profits.
A logo can be a valuable asset if it is trusted by consumers. But it's value is destroyed if it is shown to be meaningless.
Sadly, it has been shown that accreditation bodies often ignore their own standards just to keep members on their books. It's no wonder that consumers don't trust labels – or logos.
As an Environmantal Auditor and a former egg industry auditor, I have seen most of the accreditation systems operating in Australia and while most address particular issues (perhaps food safety or animal welfare) none of them puts it all together in one package. Some came close but then failed when they didn't enforce their own standards. What it means is that accreditation systems are seldom worth the paper they are written on.


Gordon Rouse said...

As a backyard egg producer I primarily produce eggs for myself. My flock suffers occasional loss from day-time fox attacks, cars and even recently some hungry wedged tailed eagles, so I need a decent number of birds that will inevitably produce more than my own needs.
I can tell you that these birds have the best possible environment. There is leaf litter galore, green grass, frogs, lizards and wild native seeds. A sponge cake made from my hen's eggs looks like nothing you have ever seen, it is so orange!

If I was to sell my unaccredited eggs to some dodgy egg seller who sells them as free range eggs, then the consumer might unwittingly get real decent eggs full of anti-oxidants, vitamin K2 and Omega 3s - it would be a terrible crime? However, I do not do shady deals with egg substitution rackets - and I doubt any backyard producers are doing anything of the sort. We sell our excess eggs at the local hardware store. If compulsory egg-stamping is implemented, I am not going to buy an egg-stamping machine - it is just not worth it. I will have to see how many eggs I can give away to my neighbours or feed them to pigs.
I find it hard to understand why small backyard flocks should be forced out of the market. I would be happy to put an identifying sticker on the cartons, but an egg-stamping machine is not economical. $4000 for maybe $60 a year revenue does not add up. I like to share my produce because I believe it is worth sharing. I want other people to see what an orange sponge-cake looks like - it is a community act, not a business venture.

Phil says that egg-substitution must be stopped, and that exempting small flocks from stamping would make the law ineffective? But who is concerned about egg-substitution from small back yard flocks? If this exemption means the egg-substitution mafia want to buy my eggs, I would be most surprised. I will invite them in and offer them my orange sponge cake!

freeranger said...

Hi Gordon, the issue is food safety. Many backyard producers have no idea of food handling requirements and the importance of temnperature control etc.
No one suggests that people should be stopped from having backyard hens - but selling the eggs poses the problem. Why should legitimate small producers have to meet all the costs of being registered with their local Council and with DEPI, maintain a Food Safety Program, meet national labelling laws and only use new cartons if more than a million eggs a year are being sold by backyarders who meet none of those requirements.
Small operators don't need to spend thousands of dollars for stamping equipment. $40 or so is all that is needed.